GARDEN CITY — Nearly all American cattle spend their final months in massive feedlots, munching on feed designed to fatten them for slaughter.
But not all that goes into the beasts transforms to beef.
Their four-chamber-stomach digestive systems continually seep all forms of gasses, including the powerful greenhouse gas methane they burp up silently and constantly.
Cattle herds also produce ammonia. By the ton. It’s in their manure and especially in their urine. Because that pungent ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, it can form nitrous oxide and pump more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
But more immediately, ammonia poses a threat to our air and water.
What if you could add something to animal feed that changes the chemistry within cattle, that converts more of what they eat into weight and less in ammonia-heavy poop and pee? Turns out there’s a new drug for that. And one that, maybe, could help cattle put on weight.
It’s not yet on the market. Its manufacturer, Elanco, isn’t saying when Experior will be for sale or how much it will charge.
Ammonia can foul air quality so much that it contributes to potentially deadly respiratory diseases. Ammonia-heavy water runoff from cattle operations contributes to the nitrogen overload in lakes and rivers that trigger algae blooms. Those, in turn, ultimately suck oxygen from waterways and create dead zones, including a massive swath in the Gulf of Mexico.
Elanco won approval in November from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for lubabegron as a way to cut ammonia in cattle waste. Research showed that, in particular conditions, adding Experior cut ammonia gas from cattle by 14% to 18%.
That’s a fraction of a reduction. But in Kansas alone, about 2.4 million cattle can be found in feedlots on a given spring day.
“When you multiply it out by a lot of animals ... that can be pretty significant in terms of reducing ammonia emissions,” said Sara Place, the senior director for sustainable beef production research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “We’ll never be able to totally eliminate those emissions, so it is more about those incremental reductions.”
At the Finney County Feedyard near Garden City, some 34,000 cattle fill pens lined with concrete feed bunks that stretch for hundreds of feet. Angus, Charolais and Hereford cattle retreat from those feed troughs as feedlot manager Jeff George drives by.
Three times a day, trucks drive back and forth delivering food, typically a mixture of corn, corn silage or other forage and vitamins.
Feedlots dot western Kansas because so much grain is grown nearby and because meatpacking plants across this corner of the state exist to slaughter and cut up cattle into hamburger and steak.
George says he would use Experior if the new drug could help him make more money, but he’d need to see trial data to make a decision.
Cattle urine and manure excrete nitrogen, which leads to ammonia gas formation.
“It’s not that farmers and ranchers aren’t concerned about the environment or it’s not that they don’t want to do anything to improve the environment,” George said. “(But) the profit margins in the livestock business, in general, are really thin. So anything that we do has to have a financial benefit.”
That sentiment doesn’t surprise Kevin Kedra, a research analyst at G.research. For a cattle operator running a business, Kedra says there’s little reason to justify an additional expense that’s all about improving air and water quality.
“If the incentive is, ‘OK, I want to be a good steward for the environment,’ you know, it’s a bit of a tougher sell given that the data, it’s not like this thing of wipes (ammonia) out 100%,” Kedra said. “It’s a reduction, but not a complete reduction of the release of the gas.”
Once cattle get moved to a feedlot, their waste, primarily their urine, contributes to ammonia gas formation.
“They’re consuming nitrogen and then the ammonia can be produced” on the ground in a feedlot pen, said Justin Waggoner, a beef systems specialist at Kansas State University.
Yet Experior retains more nitrogen within the body of a steer or heifer. That not only decreases the potential formation of ammonia gas, it could potentially help increase the weight of the animal. Yet in approving the drug, the FDA found no evidence that adding the drug to feed makes the animals put on more pounds.
“The evidence (found no) performance advantage in beef cattle, such as weight gain or feed efficiency, as a result of receiving Experior, although no negative effects were noted,” the agency said when it approved the drug.
Elanco might have more success if it can show that Experior fattens cattle more efficiently. If it could, ranchers and feedlot operators might see a way to improve their profits, not just the environment.
“So I am pretty certain that’s going to be a part of this post-approval project or projects that the company does as well in terms of actually looking at animal performance more in-depth,” said Place of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “Because … if you can justify feeding the compound because you’re going to be more efficient, then it makes a heck of a lot of sense.”
That’s a benefit George sees. He says it could catch on within the feedlot industry.
“If it did not provide a monetary benefit for the business, our profit margins are thin enough that I would be greatly surprised if anybody would feed it just to reduce cattle emissions,” George said.
The only way Kedra sees the drug being used is if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency begins requiring cattle producers to cut ammonia emissions.
“A lot of talk about what is the impact of large-scale factory farming … (is about) should EPA get involved?” Kedra says. “This product could actually have material benefits.”
Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.